No mirrors in the cage

Tuesday, July 30 2013 @ 11:11 PM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

Frequently [mauvaise foi (self-deception)] is [mis-]identified with falsehood. We say indifferently of a person that he shows signs of bad faith or that he lies to himself. We shall willingly grant that bad faith is a lie to oneself, on condition that we distinguish the lie to oneself from lying in general. Lying is a negative attitude, we will agree to that. But this negation does not bear on consciousness itself; it aims only at the transcendent. The essence of the lie implies in fact that the liar actually is in complete possession of the truth which he is hiding. A man does not lie about what he is ignorant of.
- From Existential Psychoanalysis by Jean-Paul Sartre


Jesus, I made the same mistake once again. I shouldn't have started my previous post with a mention of MSR before taking the necessary precautions. MSR stands for Mirror Self-Recognition Tests, a method to test cognitive abilities in children and animals.

Most of "US" fear the mirror like some wild animals are scared to death at the sight of fire. Narcissists seem to be exceptions. But actually I suspect narcissism is nothing but the reverse side of the fear of self.

It belatedly dawned on me that I'd underestimated the ferocity of "OUR" instinctive response to the real existential threat only when I was working on a new piece which now deals with "narcissism of the Hottentots." Some forty years ago a former Japanese Ambassador to Argentina named Kawarazaki said in a speech to the effect that the Japanese are the only species that is uglier than the Hottentots. If I remember it correctly, the controversial remarks eventually cost him his job as a diplomat. But nobody could deny he was just too honest. The wicked Queen in Snow White says to the mirror on the wall: "Mirror, mirror, who's the fairest one of all?". Now I'm asking myself: "Why are there so many narcissists in the nation of yellow Hottentots?".

I am not a narcissist myself, whether or not I look pretty much like a Hottentot, or Pigmy. So I don't particularly like to look at my own battered, wrinkled face. But unlike most of US, I don't fear the mirror. Actually I don't even need a mirror in the first place because I already know what I am, inside out. I am an ailing 77-year-old now dying in dire poverty, who is still being robbed of 20-40% of his pension by the municipal government for his consumption of radioactively contaminated oxygen. It has never been the other way around in my lifetime; not once have I extorted someone else's fruits of labor in the way the small-time thieves at the City Hall are doing to me right now. It's a different issue whether it's their fault or mine. But one thing is for sure: this cannot be a paranoiac delusion.

The reason I mentioned MSR, anyway, is because no one seems to care about OUR constant failure in the mirror test. Among a variety of versions of MSR, there is an interesting method called "the Rouge Test" in which an experimenter surreptitiously places a dot, using rouge makeup, on the face of a human child or an ape. Researchers have reported that most of the time the subject before the mirror tries to remove the embarrassing stain from its own face.

They have never thought about modifying the rouge test so it can be used for adults. But if there was such a version around, I suspect most human adults would try to wipe out the red mark from the reflection in the mirror. On the other hand, they would claim the credit for someone else's achievement when they found in the mirror a man with a trophy in his hand. The test result would reveal how the human race has developed its sense of "we-ness."

In the above-quoted passage from his Existential Psychoanalysis, Sartre wanted to say a lie is a conscious falsehood whereas mauvaise foi (self-deception) largely remains unconscious. This is an utter truism. But beware, a truism is sometimes truer than the truth. That is why the French philosopher thought an ontological approach was necessary to unravel the mechanism of self-deception.

POSTSCRIPT: If you are not familiar with ontology, here's my way of defining it. It's something that demands the disambiguation of tricky (or convenient) pronouns, especially YOU, WE, and THEY, as they are used in public discourse. You wonder: "What good would it do to precisely define and redefine these words every time any one of them comes up in our debate?". I couldn't care less if you feel it's unnecessary.

Some ten years ago I became acquainted with a funny guy named Maeda at a fast-food outlet near my workplace in central Tokyo. Perhaps he was in his late-50s or early-60s. He had a big scar on his cheek. We talked a lot about politics which revealed Maeda was a kind of anarchist although his antisocial vocabulary was quite limited and by and large second-hand. On the other hand he was reluctant to tell me his personal background in detail. All I learned in subsequent conversations between us is that he was a former member of a yakuza syndicate, and now he was jobless because he had somehow been kicked out of the organization in which he'd spent his entire "career." He added he was applying for the welfare benefits because unlike company employees, he wasn't entitled to any pension program. He hinted that he had recently kicked the habit of drug abuse.

I don't have the slightest idea of Maeda's whereabouts because I haven't heard a word from him in eight years or so. But my assumption is that although he is now on benefits, Maeda is behind bars for peddling illegal drugs or abusing them himself. If I am right, it's a happy ending for his life because I hear there's no mirror available in jail for security reasons. I sometimes suspect so many people almost voluntarily fence themselves in a real or imaginary prison simply because the mirror scares them to death.

On the contrary, if Maeda's cell was equipped with a mirror by any chance, it would be like living in hell because day in, day out, he would have to face a man who harbors an irresistible animosity against the society which extends a helping hand to him through the welfare program. Nothing can be more excruciating than receiving support from one's enemy. By comparison, the embarrassment caused by the scar on your face is nothing but an April breeze.

Sartre once observed: "Hell is other people." To paraphrase this statement, hell is in the mirror. Since the French philosopher knew mauvaise foi is inherent to the human being as defined as lêtre-pour-soi and lêtre-pour-autrui, he never intended to preach the virtue of consistency as if we were a self-contained lêtre-en-soi. He saw human integrity in a person who has the courage to face his real self.

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